Reading Diary: what day is it again?

I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.

cover2Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.

cover132346-mediumSocial Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?

I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

61iucjvvmwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

4633870306_259x395Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.

36628420Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.

Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.

2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss

It is not all right, but there is beauty.

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Sarah Moss’s new novel begins with a fifteen-year-old girl who, one day, for reasons no doctor can quite discern, collapses on the field at school and stops breathing. Her name is Miriam Goldschmidt, known to her family as Mimi or Mim, and although the novel starts with her “incident”, as others call it, what it’s actually about is Mimi’s father Adam and the way he responds to this inexplicable medical hazard that now hangs over his daughter. Adam is a stay-at-home father, and I think it highly telling that, although there are plenty of stay-at-home fathers in the world, and although I read at least a hundred books a year, I cannot think of a single book I’ve read that adopts the point of view of such a man. Moss uses Adam’s maleness as a way of turning on their heads all of the stereotypes about women who have children; it achieves the effect that one of Helen Simpson’s short stories in Cockfosters, “Erewhon”, is going for, when it gives to a late-middle-aged man an internal monologue of fears and worries about undesirability and how to have an equitable marriage when you’re not the breadwinner. The Tidal Zone works where “Erewhon” doesn’t quite, because it’s very firmly grounded in reality: Adam and his wife Emma exist in our world, where their division of household labour is viewed as progressive and vaguely alien, whereas “Erewhon” is essentially a social fantasy.

This is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I’ve read, but you can tell, from reading it, what her strengths as a novelist must be in her other books too: voice, character, and weaving poetic interstices among the episodes of action that draw them all together, give the reader a chance to breathe. The Tidal Zone is full of social commentary that passes off so casually, usually in dialogue and quite often in sarcasm, that you don’t see it until it’s already happened. Miriam, for instance, is a very clever and very infuriating fifteen-year-old with all of a fifteen-year-old’s rage and idealism: she’s awake to feminism, to the iniquities of global capitalism, to the way that the older generation seems to have so comprehensively fucked over today’s adolescents and young adults. She’s annoying about it, because she is persistently cynical and refuses to admit any comforting pabulum in any form (she mocks her father for suggesting, after her cardiac arrest, that they move to the country; she knows the narrative he’s trying to follow, and she knows that it’s “all fantasy and self-congratulation”, as she puts it). But she’s also bang on the money most of the time, and sharply funny with it. When a family friend sends her a copy of his latest book to read while she’s in hospital, she is disgusted:

“No, Dad, that’s monstrously egotistical. Oh, sorry you nearly died, you’d better read my book. My monstrously egotistical book about how when I go for a walk it’s a profound moral and spiritual experience that makes me a better person than you, but when you go to the same place you’re just a tourist messing things up… It’s a pile of bullshit about how he’s weighed down by sorrow for my generation, only not like normal adults are because we’re being badly educated for jobs that don’t exist in an economy that condemns us to poverty and homelessness, but because we can’t tell the difference between the lesser marshwort and the – the flowering marsh grass, which all goes to show that we’re losing our vital and precious sense of being at one with the natural world, rather than for example showing that the world’s moved on and by the time we’re grown up two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities and not actually giving a fuck about the lesser marshwort, and it doesn’t seem to have crossed his sorrowful little mind that if we all went and joined him communing with the fauna of furthest outer Scotland it would in fact be full of people and he’d have to find somewhere else to be superior—”

Which actually made me grin with black-hearted glee, because Miriam pinpoints so unmercifully, of course, a particular kind of bullshit nostalgia evident in contemporary nature writing (I’ll name no names), and links it so acutely to a need for superiority. It’s incisive and wonderful, and it’s also expressed in a manner entirely in keeping with a fifteen-year-old: she doesn’t sound implausibly adult, here, but like a smart, articulate, really pissed off teenager, which is exactly what she is throughout the course of the book.

Likewise, Adam’s existence as a very part-time academic (he’s working on a book about the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral) and full-time dad is laid bare for us in a conversation that he has with the father of one of Miriam’s friends:

He came to lean on the kitchen counter, watched me run a spatula round the springform cake tin… “Looks as if you really know what you’re doing. I don’t get much beyond a ready meal myself. Well, apart from the barbecue in the summer.”…He shifted his feet, as if his balls were too big for him to stand straight. I never know what I’m supposed to say to remarks like his.

…”They’re not keeping you too busy up at the University then?”

“Oh, I’m very part-time there. Just teaching once a week.” Just to get me out of the house, I didn’t say, to make a change from Pilates and getting my hair done; look, mate, it’s a job, the making of cakes and the washing of sheets, the coordination of laundry with PE lessons, the handling of the Christmas shopping and the girls’ dental appointments, and the fact that your wife does it on top of her paid work without you noticing does not make you clever.

To which, obviously, one says, Amen.

Not that Adam is a model of meek domesticity—he and Emma have marital problems aplenty, one of which is that they don’t communicate with one another very well and another of which is that they seem not to have had sex for an unbelievably long time. Both of these have to do with the fact that Emma is a GP working twelve-hour days, and although Adam knows well enough that Emma’s paycheck is what enables them to live as comfortably as they do, there is still a level of resentment there. It’s a low-level toxicity, the kind that results in a slow accretion of petty frustrations. You’re never really sure, reading The Tidal Zone, what the stress of Miriam’s “incident” and subsequent diagnosis (such as it is) is going to do to Adam and Emma’s marriage. At several points in the novel, I was almost positive it was going to end in divorce.

Moss is too canny to let us feel as though it’s all definitely going to be okay at the end—it would be nonsensical for us to feel that way given that the entire preceding novel has been precisely about the impossibility of knowing that it’s all definitely going to be okay. Her prose is fluid and sensual and gorgeous, and it is particularly well suited, I think, to describing the emotional phenomena that surround medicine and un-wellness. Adam is so badly affected by the suddenness of Miriam’s collapse, by its inexplicability, that he wanders the house unable to do anything after she returns to school. Every siren could be going to her, or going to Rose, their younger daughter. He monitors their sleep. He reminds Miriam with a zealousness bordering on mania to take her epipen with her at all times. He is afraid that the anaphylaxis will be triggered by cold, or hunger, or by running too fast. He reminded me, more painfully than I had expected, of my mother, who must have gone through precisely the same agonies when I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of three; who spent most of my childhood making sure that there was a juicebox and some peanut butter crackers in my emergency bag; who made me run up and down the stairs when it rained, to get enough exercise. Terror; love; the same thing.

The Coventry Cathedral project that Adam is working on forms a secondary strand to The Tidal Zone (the story of Adam’s parents—his father, born the child of Jewish refugees in Brooklyn, now in Cornwall; his mother, who drowned in a freak accident when Adam was a boy—is the third and final subplot.) His monograph (or, rather, his “geolocative media app”, since that is the sort of academic project that gets funded now, he tells us) is about the reconstruction of the cathedral after it was bombed to bits in the Second World War. The story of Coventry Cathedral is a story not just of recovery after great trauma, but of how that great trauma forges great beauty. The deaths of Coventry’s citizens, and the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust, are everywhere reflected in the new cathedral’s design: in the tapestry, Christ In Glory, that rises the height of the building; in the saints and angels of the West Screen, “angular, emaciated… in the image of those liberated from Nazi concentration camps.” In the roofless ruins that are left as they stand. That’s how you transform an experience that could destroy you: you make it beautiful. You tell a story.

Moss integrates her themes so well that, as I thought about the book after reading it, I kept pulling out new strands and thinking, “Ah, yes! Oh, that makes sense too, in conjunction with this, and with that bit…” If I’m honest, I’m still not entirely sure how she does it—maintains that limpid, vivid prose while being so elegant with the big ideas underpinning it all. It’s an extraordinary book, an unforgettable one, and one I’d urge on anyone, really. Perhaps by reading her other books, I’ll work out how it’s done.

Many thanks to Lamorna Elmer at Granta Books for the review copy. The Tidal Zone was published in the UK on 7 July.